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Luke Jackson, Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar

Venue: Folk In The Barn
Town: Canterbury
Date: 9/4/16

First things first, special mention to Folk in the Barn, the brainchild of local promoter Debs Earl who has been putting on live Folk, Roots and Acoustic music in the Canterbury area for nearly fifteen years now.

Concerts are put on in several venues of differing capacities and acts range from lofty folk luminaries Fairport Convention, Show of Hands and Chris Wood, to contemporary roots acts such as Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin and Gilmore & Roberts, to established but possibly lesser known performers like Edwina Hayes and David Hughes. Folk in the Barn now has a real core support network and Debs works very hard at ensuring all the shows are well attended so the acts play to an enthusiastic and respectful audience. Luckily, tonight was no exception!

Luke, Greg and Ciaran first met at the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award finalist's weekend in 2012, with the duo deservedly winning the official award in 2013. Since then they have all kept in touch and played at some of the same festivals and so on, but I think this was the first time they had officially shared a stage.

The premise for this tour was that of the increasingly popular 'double header' shows, where two acts of similar standing do about an hour each and if the crowd is lucky, play a bit on one another's songs!

Luke was on first and playing to a home Canterbury crowd. I must of course declare familial bias, but I think few present would disagree that he was anything other than outstanding. I see him play less often these days and the thing that struck me most was a real sense of him growing into his ability. His voice, guitar playing and overall performance just seemed a natural part of him. A sometime criticism in the past has been that of an over reliance on his voice, but tonight everything was in service of the songs, which if anything made his vocals even more striking.

His set was well judged and balanced, a very good mix of live regulars like the opener 'Fathers Footsteps' and the closer 'Sister' plus a fine cover of the ubiquitous 'Man of Constant Sorrow'. There was a reworking of numbers that have been dropped from live shows over recent months such as 'Charlie In The Big World' and the introduction of some newer songs that are all up for a place on his upcoming album due out in late summer.

The newer songs seem very strong and his writing subjects are broadening and maturing. The gloriously catchy and rhythmic 'Aunt Sally' carries a darker commentary on the failings of mental health care in the community and 'That's all Folks' is a stark, narrative observation of a suicide captured in a heartbreakingly sweet melody. Another newish song 'Better Man' featured Greg on harmony vocals while Ciaran added some marvellously spacey, ethereal fiddle and this performance was simply stunning.

In the past, I think Luke has suffered a bit from 'local boy syndrome'. That is, he has felt a bit inhibited playing in front of people he knows from his hometown, whilst some folks may have begrudged paying to see him when only a few short years ago he was doing Jason Mraz covers in the local pubs for nothing!

Absolutely no sign of this tonight though and Luke delivered an assured, memorable set.

Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar have done brilliantly over the past few years. BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winners 2013, BBC Radio 2 Horizon Award winners 2014 and BBC Radio 2 Best Duo nominees in 2015.

It is easy to see why. Greg is blessed with a wonderfully powerful and expressive, archetypal folk voice and is a very tight rhythm guitarist. Ciaran is simply a superb fiddle player and along with his breathtaking speed and dexterity, he is a sympathetic accompanist. I thought his supporting lines, fills and swells under Greg's vocals were outstanding and brought an added depth and emotion to the songs.

The full and expansive sound they create is very much a case of the two of them together being far greater than the sum of the parts.

Greg and Ciaran were touring in support of their just released third album 'The Silent Majority'. Accordingly, several songs from the new CD were featured and they all sounded very strong.

Greg and Ciaran are great interpreters of both traditional and modern folk songs and bring an almost ageless quality to them. Within this, their song choices also have something contemporary to say and a clear relevance to the here and now in both a social and political sense.

They set out their stall with the opening song 'Did You Like The Battle, Sir' which featured all of the above. A sparse, muted guitar introduction, a very stately vocal that suited the song content perfectly and some beautiful fiddle from Ciaran.

Of course, the crowd were also treated to several tunes which inevitably featured some virtuoso playing from Ciaran, some splendid rhythm from Greg and lots of clever syncopation, particularly when making the transition from one tune to another, all of which the pair made look completely effortless. As would be expected, these sets were received noisily by the crowd!

For me, other standouts were 'The Silent Majority' and 'Rolling Down The Ryburn' from the new album and 'The New Railroad' off their first CD 'The Queen's Lover'. I remember the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk finalist's weekend back in 2012 when all the acts played two songs at a lovely concert presented by Mike Harding. I recall being completely blown away by Greg & Ciaran's version of this song, it was so powerful then and I thought tonight's version surpassed even that.

The Pete Coe song 'Rolling Down The Ryburn' is another clever choice where again the message remains contemporary and particularly applicable to any jobbing musician. As another example of the timelessness traditions of good folk music, before the advent of our children we saw Pete Coe play this in around 1988 at Dartford Folk Club in Kent and here we were almost 30 years later watching two young men do a beautifully authentic version of his song.

One of the pleasures of live music of course, is witnessing the acts interactions with one another and relationships they build with the audience. Greg and Ciaran are very funny and in a few short years this humour seems to have shifted from jokes and puns to an almost 'Reeves and Mortimer' type surrealism. Greg has a dry, acerbic sense of humour whereas Ciaran is more anarchic and uncontrolled. An added twist is that at times it is difficult to tell whether they are on the verge of 'falling out' on stage as Greg gives his adult 'enough is enough' look, which just seems to incite Ciaran to further errant behaviour. Of course, their winning of the Young Folk Award and Luke being a runner up was also fuel for much banter, the best of which I thought was them announcing 'he couldn't travel to the gigs in the same car as them as they kept their winners trophy on the passengers seat'!

As has seemed to be the case all through this tour judging by the number of videos taken, the last encore song reached new levels of beauty. The three took the stage together and performed a marvellously arranged version of Damien Rice's 'Delicate'.

Everything about it was breathtaking, subtle guitar and bouzouki from Greg and Ciaran respectively, Greg and Luke taking turns with the verses and some wonderful harmonies from all three where each voice blended perfectly as a whole, yet remained distinctive in its own right.

This all seemed about as good as music gets really.

A well-organised and promoted event by Folk in the Barn, great sound provided by Phil Wilson's Independent Music Production, an enthusiastic, appreciative crowd and superb performances by three very talented musicians.

Let's hope it all comes round again!

Paul Jackson - Photo Neil King, not taken at venue

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